When considering the Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome, it is best to simply put aside any notions of the contemporary meaning of the English word "stoic" and consider their writings afresh. The Ancient Stoics were not interested in finding tranquility by forcefully repressing emotions. Rather, they were interested in seeing through the irrational triggers of unskillful emotional responses, to reveal natural human social virtue.
Sadly, most of the writings of the stoics are lost (but I have high hopes for the library at Herculaneum). The two major works that survive are the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor, and the discourses of Epictetus, a Roman slave. Both are well worth pursuing, but I prefer Marcus Aurelius and will be relying primarily on the George Long translation of his work for this article.
There is much of value to be learned from the Stoics. Indeed, I believe that Stoic philosophy and practices make a good adjunct to modern mindfulness, which is why I have included this article in this website.
The Stoics sought tranquility and contentment through the practice of specific cognitive processes and self-examination. These cognitive processes were derived through careful reasoning from certain facts, the most important of which are:
1. Impermanence, and ultimate insignificance, of all things, including human lives, works, and reputations.
2. The very narrow range of control any individual has over the circumstances of the world, including what other people think, say, and do.
3. That the way we experience the world is deeply influenced by the mental processes we practice.
4. That human beings are social creatures and our true nature is to promote social harmony.
Taking a different, but not inconsistent, path, mindfulness seeks tranquility and contentment through the practice of infusing sensory experience with clarity and equanimity rather than through cognitive processing.
The culmination of mindfulness practice (as discussed more fully in the article on teacher scandals) is the emergence of the love and compassion that naturally arises in a social creature freed from craving and aversion.
The Stoics place more emphasis on rational, intellectual processes to eliminate craving and aversion while mindfulness uses a direct, equanimous examination of sensory experience. But the two paths share some common destinations. The Stoics used the word "virtue" to describe the natural inclination towards love and service that arises in humans free from the drive of the passions. Note that not being driven by emotions is not the same as being without emotions. And this is where the Stoics were perhaps unclear or not fully matured.
With that introduction, let's look at some choice quotes from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
"Through not observing what is in the mind of another, a man has seldom been seen to be unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy."
[Here he points out the supreme importance of meditation as a path to happiness.]
"The universe is transformation: life is opinion."
"Take away thy opinion, and there is taken away the complaint, 'I have been harmed.' Take away the complaint, 'I have been harmed,' and the harm is taken away."
[Here he points out that it is resistance to unpleasant experience that causes suffering. This is right out of standard Asian meditation. It is the opinion of injury held by the fixated sense of a separate self that it has been harmed that causes suffering. If there is injury but no separate, fixated self to "own" it, there is no self to suffer.]
"Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of the animal which is naturally social requires, and as it requires. For this brings not only the tranquility which comes from doing well, but also that which comes from doing few things."
[Here he refers to the simplicity and tranquility that comes from being motivated by natural human instinct to promote social harmony rather than by craving and aversion.]
"For all things soon pass away and become a mere tale, and complete oblivion soon buries them. And I say this of those who have shone in a wondrous way. For the rest, as soon as they have breathed out their breath, they are gone, and no man speaks of them. And, to conclude the matter, what is even an eternal remembrance? A mere nothing. What, then, is that about which we ought to employ our serious pains? This one thing, thoughts just, and acts social, and words which never lie, and a disposition which gladly accepts all that happens, as necessary, as usual, as flowing from a principle and source of the same kind."
[Here he punctures the notions of anything to be gained as a separate, grasping, fixated self and instead prescribes equanimity and virtuous action.]
"Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are and to make new things like them."
[Here he articulates the impermanence of all things, one of the three characteristics of existence described in Buddhism.]
"Constantly regard the Universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the co-operating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web."
[Here he counsels to see into the oneness of all things and the interconnectedness, called dependent origination in Buddhism.]
"Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts. Dye it then with a continuous series of such thoughts as [will promote virtue]"
[Here he describes the psychological principle that we get good at what we practice, including the way we think, emote, and process our experience of self and world. We can choose to shape these attributes with practice to promote tranquility and social harmony.]
"But when these affects [body sensations of pleasure or pain] rise up to the mind by virtue of that other sympathy that naturally exists in a body which is all one, then thou must not strive to resist the sensation, for it is natural: but let not the ruling part of itself add to the sensation the opinion that it is either good or bad."
[Here he speaks against repressing emotions, counseling instead to greet them with equanimity. Let them arise naturally but don't be driven by them or engage in judging them.]
"Some things are hurrying into existence, and others are hurrying out of it; and of that which is coming into existence part is already extinguished. Motions and changes are continually renewing the world, just as the uninterrupted course of time is always renewing the infinite duration of ages. In this flowing stream then, on which there is no abiding, what is there of the things which hurry by on which a man would put a high price? It would be just as if a man should fall in love with one of the sparrows which fly by, but it has already passed out of sight."
[In this remarkable passage, Marcus Aurelius touches not only on impermanence at the macro level, but at the micro level, and on the experience of simultaneous arising and passing, and non-abiding. The Emperor of Rome realized he had no place to stand.]
"It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul, for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements."
[Let go of judging, picking and choosing good from bad, congealing a sense of personal identity around opinions.]
"If the things do not come to thee, the pursuits and avoidances of which disturb thee, still in manner thou goest to them. Let then thy judgment about them be at rest, and they will remain quiet, and thou wilt not be seen either pursuing or avoiding."
[Advising us to let go of craving and aversion and find freedom and tranquility.]
It is easy to see that Marcus Aurelius was involved in a contemplative practice not unlike what has come to us out of Asia. He saw deeply into impermanence. And he recognized that craving, aversion, unconsciousness, and attachment to judgments of the circumstances of the world as good or bad, were a self-imposed prison from which we could be free through our own efforts at shaping consciousness. He lacked the highly developed meditation methods of the Buddhists, or at least did not write about them, but was clearly making progress on the same path.
Epictetus also had some valuable comments:
"What disturbs men's minds is not events but their judgements on events."
"To accuse others for one's own misfortunes is a sign of want of education; to accuse oneself shows that one's education has begun; to accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one's education is complete."
"You ask . . . what can you call your own. The answer is - the way you deal with your impressions."
"Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be that events should happen as they do, and you shall have peace."
The Stoics could have benefited from access to the advanced contemplative methods developed in Asia, but the timing was not right for them. (Perhaps if Alexander the Great had lived another thirty years, things might have been very different.) However, the modern meditator has access to the both the contemplative methods of Asia and the cognitive methods of the Stoics. The following are some choice intellectual practices of the stoics that may be a useful adjunct for meditators.
Two Stoic exercises I find useful are as follows:
1. Internalize your goals. Choose goals that don't depend on circumstances and events outside your control. For example, instead of having the goal of "I will get my novel published this year", which depends on circumstances beyond your control, make your goal something like "I will submit my manuscript to one agent or publisher every week this year." By internalizing your goals, you free your actions from the grip of forces outside your control.
2. Contract your sphere of concern until it matches your sphere of influence. The average person spends an enormous amount of time and energy fretting about matters over which they have no control. And, since waking hours and energy are finite, this average person necessarily neglects matters over which they DO have control.
Here is a homework assignment: divide a piece of paper into two columns; label one column "Matters over which I have significant control" and label the other column "Matters over which I have no significant control." Then fill it out. Ponder how much of your time and effort is spent concerning yourself over matters you cannot control. Then for each entry, develop a strategy for shifting your concerns away from the uncontrollable and towards the controllable. Here is my current list:
Matters over which I have significant control:
1. How I treat people
2. How I process my experience
3. My diet
4. My exercise routine
5. My choice of entertainment
6. The books I read
7. My effort to acquire new skills and knowledge
8. How I teach
Matters over which I have no significant control:
1. What other people think, say, and do
4. Natural disasters
5. My ultimate mortality
6. The ultimate mortality of every other living creature
8. Economic fluctuations
Of course there are some matters that fall in between. For example, I can try to live a healthy lifestyle and that can mitigate disease to some extent, but it is ultimately out of my control. And I can take steps to guard myself against economic problems, but only to a limited extent. In such cases where there is crossover, you simply do what you can and then forget about it.
These Stoic practices make a fine compliment to the practice of meditation.